Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Elderly are Invisible

I was sitting in a park near my apartment this morning, drinking my coffee and watching the world go by. While sitting on my bench, an old man (who must have been at least 80 or so) with one of those wheeling walkers shuffled by. He said hello to me (and another person he passed), walked a few paces past me, and started leaning against the back of the bench next to mine. He did a few leg stretch things, then meandered over towards some nearby stairs and slowly walked down a few of them  (one at a time) and back up again, holding both rails the whole time. I confess to wondering if he'd made it down and up okay, but he seemed reasonably sure-footed, if very slow.

I remember Papa Holmes once making the point to me that once you reach middle-age, you become invisible. People's eyes are drawn towards young, vibrant beautiful people (of whatever sex). When you start getting past the point that you are attractive, people stop noticing you. It's almost as if you don't exist - when they walk past you, you are just another obstacle in their automatic collision detection software, the same as a tree or a lamppost. If you asked 20 people that just passed you, nobody would be able to remember that you were there.

There is an old people's home near my apartment, and while most of them do not venture out very far, it seems almost certain that I've passed some of them before while walking. I can't remember it happening though. Without the contemplation encouraged by having nothing to do on a park bench on a Sunday morning, I almost certainly wouldn't have noticed this man either.

As Al Pacino's character put it in the movie 'Any Given Sunday', "when you get old, things get taken from you.". I think he's right, but I would modify it slightly. Things are lost, but not taken. The difference is one of agency, but it is an important one.

I found myself reflecting on how much the elderly have lost that you and I take for granted in our youth. I bound up and down stairs without thinking about it. I swim in the ocean. I drive my car. I fly for 18 hours to a foreign country. I dress myself, bathe myself, and go to the toilet without noticing that I don't need anyone to help me. I reflect on my health only on the odd occasion when I get a cold. I eat whatever food I wish. I pass a pretty girl in the street, and she smiles at me. I have friends I can call and go out to a bar, cinema, cafe, or restaurant.

You may depend on it, dear reader, that there will come a time when you can no longer do all these things.

Indeed, there may come a time when you can do none of these things.

As I got up to leave, the old man was resting on the seat part of his walker. As I walked off, I stopped to talk to the man. I smiled and lamely tried to make conversation by saying that he had a better seat than I did. He smiled back and said 'Good', in a tone that implied that he hadn't heard the statement properly and assumed I was asking how he was. I walked off, regretting my awkwardness at not stopping and talking more. I wondered how many others were sitting in the retirement home nearby, without anyone who visits.

The elderly are indeed invisible. Old age is dukkha, as the great recluse said.

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